06/18/2021

Kids Are Benefiting From Adult Vaccinations, Too

12:11 minutes

This story is a part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.


Something interesting is happening in some communities where most adults are vaccinated against COVID-19: infection rates in kids are going way down, too. Right now, Americans 12 and older are eligible for the vaccine, leaving the country’s youngest still exposed. So this is a promising sign, considering about two-thirds of U.S. adults have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

But some experts are saying we still need to be cautious about throwing kids together again before they’re vaccinated. Joining Ira to chat about this story is Maggie Koerth, senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They also talk about other top science stories of the week, including news that cicada broods might emerge more often with climate change.


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Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a senior science reporter with FiveThirtyEight.com. She’s based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. This week, House Democrats unveiled their first ever bill that would decriminalize drug possession for small amounts of all substances. The bill would also expunge the records for people with drug-related offenses and resentence some people currently in jail. US representative Bonnie Watson Coleman from New Jersey is one of the sponsors for this bill.

BONNIE WATSON COLEMAN: Thursday, indeed, marks the 50th anniversary of President Nixon’s declaration of the so-called War on Drugs. And in reality, it never was a war on addiction or the debilitating health impacts drugs have on some people. It was a war on people.

IRA FLATOW: Later in the hour, we’ll talk about one substance whose rules and regulations vary drastically by state– medical cannabis. We’ll discuss how federal regulations make it hard to study what marijuana does to the body, leading many doctors to feel uncomfortable recommending it to patients.

But first, in some communities, where most adults are vaccinated against COVID-19, infection rates in kids are going way down. Data has only been collected in a few places. But it is a promising sign, considering about 2/3 of US adults have received at least one dose of a vaccine.

So what does this mean for our kids? And is this the elusive herd immunity we’ve been waiting for? Here to discuss this and other news is Maggie Koerth, senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight based in Minneapolis. Welcome back to Science Friday.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Hi, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. So Maggie, even though kids younger than 12 can’t get vaccinated, infections in kids are still going down. Sounds cool. What’s going on here?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, this is really– god, some good COVID news. It’s so nice to be able to say that. In several places around the world, cases of COVID among kids who are too young to be vaccinated have fallen in tandem at almost the same rates, in some spots, with the post-vaccination drop in cases among adults.

Dion [? Louis ?] has a story over at Nature about how you’re getting this data from Israel, the United States, Brazil, and it’s all offered evidence that vaccination is producing some level at least of herd immunity, that the vaccinated people are interrupting the spread of disease enough to protect the unvaccinated as well. Now, this effect could also have something to do with the evidence that suggests kids spread COVID less efficiently than adults. If most cases in kids come from adults, then vaccinating the adults protects the kids, right?

But these results aren’t consistent everywhere. The UK, for instance, has seen cases among children fall, but also their data shows kids still spreading the virus to each other. This is really good news. It still needs to be sort of figured out.

But figuring it out matters because it helps us understand something about how likely these unvaccinated kids are to be incubating new variants. That adds then into this ongoing international discussion about whether we’re better off vaccinating younger kids in places like the US and the UK or reserving those doses for adults in countries that haven’t had nearly as much vaccine access.

IRA FLATOW: You seem to be a little bit hesitant in saying this might be true herd immunity.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Right, I mean, there’s still– because it’s not consistently happening everywhere and because it is– there’s different aspects of timing with when vaccinations got rolled out in different places and whether it coincided with kids being in school or not. The researchers are not super solid on saying that it is herd immunity. But it could be in that direction, potentially. It’s good news.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah.

MAGGIE KOERTH: We just don’t know exactly how good yet.

IRA FLATOW: Absolutely. Let’s move on to some climate change news. That’s very topical for some parts of the US right now. And I’m talking about these cicada broods. There’s news that they might come out more often with warmer weather. Tell us what’s going on there.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, so it’s a big deal year for cicadas. The massive Brood X has emerged from the Earth to yell at each other and us and really everything at absolutely peak volume. And those cicadas are one of 12 broods that emerge every 17 years in the US.

But there are three other broods that emerge on a 13-year cycle instead. And researchers have found that the cicadas that are on that 13-year cycle, there’s actually evidence that cicadas can change the length of their life cycles. So there’s this really great video about this on Science by Meagan Cantwell, and the theory is that those 13-year cicadas are offshoots of 17-year cicadas that adapted for a warming period in the climate that happened some 200,000 years ago.

The researchers who study cicadas think the bugs with that 17-year itch can emerge four years early or four years late in response to environmental shifts. And if that gets selected for in enough generations, it can become a genetic trait, not just a necessary short-term response. So in 2017, some of the Brood X cicadas that were in the Washington DC area actually emerged early. And there is some evidence that warming from climate change might affect this and make those early emergences more likely.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, so we could get earlier recipes for cicada tacos.

MAGGIE KOERTH: We could, in fact. That was actually another thing that I found. I went looking to see, were there early European colonists’ reports of Brood X cicadas? I wanted to see what those were like. And I found a couple of blog posts that were talking about some of these. And they were talking about the recipes, too.

[LAUGHTER]

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, yeah, it’s quite interesting.

MAGGIE KOERTH: You got to eat them.

IRA FLATOW: Absolutely. Let’s talk about– speaking of intriguing stories, let’s talk about one about plants, specifically plant organs. A new plant organ has been discovered?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yes, this was found in Arabidopsis thaliana, which is a really heavily studied plant. It’s used in a lot of laboratory biology experiments.

IRA FLATOW: Sort of related to mustard.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yes, exactly. Yeah, and part of what makes this such a big surprise to find is because it is something that scientists have spent years just like staring at but never saw this entirely new organ that this plant can grow when it wants to. And this organ is called the cantils, and it’s kind of like a bent elbow of stem growing off the side of this little white flower.

And it seems to form when the plant is under the right light conditions, like it’s not getting enough light to have this long day reaction of growing flowers. It’s also not still getting short days, where it’s saving up its energy. When the light is somewhere in between, the cantils grows.

So the reason we never noticed this, though, is because, in the laboratory, scientists give it lots of light because they want the plants to flower. Part of doing the research is making this plant– getting this plant the perfect conditions for flowering. And what I love about this is that it is such a perfect example of that, when we study a thing, we change it. And what happens in the wild and what happens in the laboratory are not always the same thing.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

MAGGIE KOERTH: This is something that we just did not notice because of the circumstances of how we were studying this plant.

IRA FLATOW: It’s like the quote from Jurassic park. Life finds a way, right?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Indeed.

IRA FLATOW: Our next story is about ancient discovery. It looks like Antarctica, one of my favorite places, was found about 1,000 years before we thought it was. Tell us about that story.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, so Europeans first spotted Antarctica in 1820, but this new study of oral history traditions has found evidence that Polynesian people were actually visiting the southernmost continent far earlier, as far back as the early 600s. This evidence comes from 1,300-year-old oral traditions that were handed down among different groups of Maori people.

And these stories describe a great hero, a guy named Ui-te-Rangiora, who traveled south with his crew, ended up encountering these Antarctic features that we still see today, things like fields of bull kelp in the Southern Ocean, which the stories describe in the tales as the hairs of women, and physical descriptions of this place that sounds like the barren mountains and snow and ice swept wastes of Antarctica. It’s really cool to see these sort of geographic descriptions that really match up with what we still see in Antarctica today.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so that’s interesting. So they learned about it by paying attention to oral history.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, I mean, do we know if Antarctica, back then, was like the Antarctica we know now?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, it’s the things that are being described.

IRA FLATOW: It wasn’t that long ago geologically speaking.

MAGGIE KOERTH: It was not that long ago, geologically, no.

IRA FLATOW: Our last story is about how sound impacts the hunting habits of birds and bats. Tell us about this experiment.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, this is a really hilarious experiment to me because, basically, these researchers hauled 3 and 1/2 metric tons of speakers and solar panels and all this equipment into a remote part of Idaho’s Pioneer Mountains, basically just so they could mess with some wildlife. They went to this place, where there were calm, peaceful springs, and they started playing the thunderous sounds of massive river rapids so they could see how the bats and birds dealt with it.

And the bats and birds dealt with all that extra noise basically by peacing out. It was 12 decibels, and you saw bird abundance decrease by about 7%, bat activity decrease by about 8%. And that’s probably not surprising, given that both animals are pretty reliant on their sense of hearing.

Bats use it for echolocation. Birds use hearing for communication among each other. And the birds also got less effective at foraging for caterpillars, though, which– that’s the thing they do with their eyes, so the researchers think that the sound was actually distracting, like trying to do a math problem in a really loud classroom.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I mean, can’t you hear them saying, god, this is just annoying. All this noise here.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, someone got a grant to go annoy wildlife is basically what this boils down to.

[LAUGHTER]

IRA FLATOW: Where was this done? Do we know what part of the country–

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, this was an Idaho–

IRA FLATOW: –this was done? Idaho.

MAGGIE KOERTH: –in the Pioneer Mountains in Idaho.

IRA FLATOW: Yes, a very peaceful place. Now, all of a sudden, these big sounds come about. When we talk about all these things changing, we also bring up climate change all the time. Could this be a lesson for climate change somehow?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Well, I don’t know if it’s a lesson for climate change, but it’s definitely a lesson about paying attention to human noise pollution. We make loud noises everywhere, and we are finding, increasingly, that changes in noise, changes in how loud an area is can really affect the animals that live there. And if even natural sounds can do that, imagine what a backhoe would do.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Thank you, Maggie.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yes, thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: Always great to have you. Maggie Koerth, senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight based in Minneapolis.

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About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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